Wednesday, April 20, 2011


And so to Djenné, one of West Africa’s oldest towns and one of the jewel's in Mali's crown, and I’m sitting here typing this whilst watching an orange headed lizard with a blue body - they own this place - do those strange little press ups lizards do, not five yards away from me. Djenné is one of those superlative exhausting places you probably haven’t heard of - I hadn’t - but should. It isn’t overly easy to get to - I had to get off the Bamako-Mopti bus at the carrefour de Djenné and wait two and half hours whilst the price for the shared taxi went up the darker it got, and then you have to take a ferry across the river, as Djenné is built on an island - but it’s absolutely worth all of the effort.
The centrepiece in this stunning place is its Grand Mosquée, the largest mud-built structure in the world apparently. The present incarnation was rebuilt entirely in 1907 but it was first built back in 1280 and it’s a beautiful construction when you consider that, well, it‘s made from mud. There are three front-facing turrets from which innumerable wooden spars jut and which give it its other-wordly appearance. Truly, it looks like some sort of prototype medieval African spaceship or an unusually shaped birthday cake from which several Flakes protrude. After the rainy season each year a team of volunteers gather to give the place its annual renovation and explains why, for a structure built over 100 years ago, it’s remarkably well preserved. Naturally, the interior is closed to non-Muslims but the exterior is more than spectacular enough to not feel bothered by that. It’s also unusual in that the call to prayer is done by a man who stands on a wall to the right of the mosque and belts it out at the top of his voice. This is a change from the deafening pre-recorded calls to prayer that have ruined many a lie-in in Muslim countries around the world. Hopefully this starts a trend.
The town of Djenné itself is every bit as magical as the mosque for which it gets its fame. You won’t find any touch screen interpretative centres anywhere here and for a UNESCO World Heritage Sight it’s managed to retain the timelessness that brought it to attention in the first place. This is probably the first town that I’ve visited in West Africa where I’ve truly felt that the way of life, the houses, the traditions and the customs haven’t changed remotely in half a millennium or more. There are few cars here and you’re just as likely to be shouted at for blocking the way of an advancing team of oxen and cart as you are being beeped at. India this is not. I befriend two locals who own a crafts shop and spend much time drinking tea and sheltering from the sun with them. One of them points out his girlfriend on the street one afternoon but he explains that he can’t marry her because he doesn’t have enough money. Women in Djenné, they stress, like lots of money.
They don’t like their bad spirits here and there’s a tomb of a young girl who was sacrificed back in the 9th century in the belief that it would banish the evil spirits from the town. There’s another tomb nearby where women who are having difficulty becoming pregnant come and throw something as an offering on the tomb. Perhaps this is the way to go as far as IVF treatment is concerned because there are children everywhere here and all of them want a cadeau or a bon bon from me.
On a wander around the town I drift out towards where the mud-brick houses thin out and find myself looking out over a vast plain through which a barely moving river flows - this is dry season. What’s special about it though is the fact that there are hundreds of people, mostly women, strewn along the banks of the river bathing children, washing pots and pans and doing the laundry. As unexpected and breathtaking sights go, it is absolutely cinematic in its beauty. I take some token photos hoping to capture some of the magic but as with all sights like this, I stare for ten minutes to preserve that mental picture.
I spend three nights here, all of them sleeping on the rooftop of Chez Baba and I have it all to myself - there are no other guests staying here right now because few are stupid enough to travel in Mali in April. For 3,000F you get a mattress on the roof and if you’re lucky there’s a full moon - there is - and you sleep under the stars with a wonderfully cooling nocturnal breeze. It remains about 25 degrees during the night but it is the most exquisite place to sleep and then you’re awake the next morning with the buzz from the town below. What I didn’t expect to find here amidst the chaos, dust and kids harassing me for sweets, in fact about the last thing anybody would expect to find here was a local kid wearing a Clare GAA jersey. Yes, Clare. So in my few days here; Barcelona? Check. Real Madrid? Check. Scummers? Check. Liverpool? Check. Clare? Er, check. No doubt there’ll be bonfires burning on the streets of Djenné for that next Munster Final victory. That's a line Marty Morrissey would love to use.
I arrive here the day before Djenné’s second biggest draw - its Grand Marchée, held every Monday. The population of the town doubles or triples as traders and buyers come from the surrounding villages, some covering huge distances, to get here early on Monday morning. The space in front of the Mosquée is utterly transformed as when I got here on Saturday night it was empty but by Sunday evening had already started to fill with some traders staking their claim to the best sites, pitching their stalls and sleeping there lest their prime site would be usurped. Even here it’s all about location, location, location. The Marchée has been happening, probably, since Biblical times and I imagine that it differs little from then today. The whole thing is enormous. By the time I wandered down there early on Monday morning it was transformed and by lunchtime there wasn’t a space left between the various traders. It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before. It’s almost impossible to squeeze your way through the heaving bodies; women with their sleeping bambinos tied to their backs, scruffily dressed kids with buckets pleading for un cadeau, wandering pharmacists carrying buckets filled with a variety of pills, young boys selling putrid tomatoes and dried chillies, hungry babies breastfeeding everywhere, herdsmen leading their prize goats through the melee, tribal homeopaths with special threads to cure your backache, little girls running amok gazing up and shouting Tu vas ou? and men with trolleys, empty and full, desperately trying to make their through all of the aforementioned and me. In a word - special.
Though the environment surrounding Djenné is unforgiving there are many villages nearby and I prolonged my stay here by an extra day to visit the village of Sirimou, home to the wonderfully named Bozo people. It’s a 20 minute moped ride from Djenné and when you get there you have to wade across the river as it’s built on an island. It’s a beautiful place and they also have their own captivating mosque though on a much smaller scale than Djenné’s. As we cross the river we’re surrounded by naked kids swimming in the shallows with buckets tied to their waists looking for fish. They’ve caught several which they proudly show me but they’re barely of goldfish proportions. We visit the village primary school where children attend - and many don’t - between the ages of 7-14. Lessons are taught in French only and in the senior class there were 40 children. Yikes. I visit another village in which, amazingly, there’s a wedding ceremony. We can hear some incredible music before we get near the ceremony and there, in the centre of the village, is a stunning little celebration with beautiful Malian music and a dance performance by some village women. My presence there is noted and ignored as everyone’s too busy enjoying the dancing and the music. I am utterly entranced by this part of the world, moreso than anywhere to date in West Africa and watching ceremonies like this which aren’t deliberately staged for visitors makes it feel more special.

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